Lu Diyuan, a rising young Peking Opera actor, has given no performances for the past 15 months. Instead, he has been battling against the painful effects of the acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a kind of blood cancer.
China has seen a rising leukemia rate with a yearly increase of 40,000 cases. And most sufferers are children and youngsters.
Two weeks ago, the 18-year-old from Southwest China's Yunnan Province received the bone marrow transplantation at the Beijing Daopei Hospital. He is slowly recovering, despite the painful physical and mental side effects.
"He can't sleep well, his body often aches terribly at night. Nor does he have a good appetite. Sometimes he threw up all he ate," sighed Lu Xue, the teen's exhausted father, from the hospital.
"It feels like going up the hills, one after another, and you can't tell when it ends."
Lu and his parents communicate by phone every day, separated by a layer of glass. Though in total agony, he tries to smile at everyone, and is nicknamed "the sunshine boy" by the medical staff.
News of the young Peking Opera actor's illness has aroused much attention from not only the public but also Peking Opera artists. Peking Opera and the Chinese oral artists recently held three major charity performances in Beijing to show their support for the young man.
In the circle of traditional Chinese operas, a talented actor or actress is described as the "worm." In the eyes of many veterans, Lu is one such promising "worm" rarely seen these years.
When he was only 2 years old, Lu was taken to see his father rehearsing at the Yunnan Peking Opera House. His father was an actor playing the aged male role (laosheng). The child became interested in the fascinating facial makeup, costumes and weapon props. He often warbled after his father, even though he was too young to know the exact meanings of the lyrics, which were passed down for over 200 years.
"I explained to him, sentence by sentence, what those arias depicted," said the father. "The opera was a good hobby for a child that was what I thought at first. I didn't want him to be an opera actor like me because there were so many toils ahead, and you must practise and practise all day, while other kids play outside."
Even despite his father's concerns, Lu made his debut at age 5. A year later, he won the first prize of the amateur division at the top National Children Peking Opera Contest in Tianjin.
He astonished the circle again by capturing the professional title at the same contest when he was 8. He was later admitted to the Beijing Chinese Opera and Arts College.
"His success at the national competition was great encouragement, and the decisive factor for him to engage in the circle," said Lu's father.
Still, the worried father wondered whether his son was well prepared.
"I reminded him that it is your choice and you should be strong enough to overcome all hardships in the future," said Lu Xue. "Otherwise, you will disappoint yourself."
The following six bittersweet years at the college proved young Lu to be an outstanding student who was also hard on himself.
Sometimes he got dead tired of practising basic skills and complained to his parents. Other times, he would cry if he tried several times but still failed to perform to his satisfaction.
"One day I was explaining a new play to Lu in class. Some foreign guests came over and asked him to present the aria, which the boy merely knew how to sing. I tried to tell them that he was unable to act. But Lu assured me that he wouldn't disgrace us. And he was right. The boy made no mistake in singing and even added movements himself. He looked so confident and smart that he left me a strong first impression," said Cai Baojie, Lu's teacher.
"Lu gave performances both at home and abroad. What people saw on the stage was not a child, but a vivid tragic hero exactly as the script portrayed. He captured all the audiences' hearts."
Lu and his alumnus, Mu Yu, are both called the "Four Young Talents to play laosheng" in Beijing's Peking Opera circle.
"We are alumni, room-mates, best friends, partners and competitors," said Mu.
"He is quite positive and outgoing. The competition between us is based on mutual help. We are used to co-starring together."
Like most other peers, Lu was a troublemaker and labeled as "naughty, energetic and rushing all the time" by his teachers. He still played with others in costumes at the last minute before the performance.
No wonder everybody who knew the good-natured and mischievous boy came to his side after hearing of his serious illness.
"I will never forget that day, December 27, 2004, when the doctor diagnosed my son as being sick of ALL. I would never have been so desperate, and that feeling worsened when I saw fears in my son's eyes," said the father.
"I jumped out of the chair immediately after I was told that he was severely ill," recalled his teacher Cai Baojie. "I couldn't imagine such an upcoming star falling before he could even have a chance to shine more."
Yet Lu has shown courage and strength beyond people's expectations.
"We dare not tell him until he knew everything from a report half a month later. Still, he tried to comfort me and said, it is all right, dad, it is a destined test for me," said Lu Xue.
"Unlike many youngsters, he has no favorites in pop music. He listens to aria recordings by Peking Opera masters to support him during miserable therapies."
Outside the hospital, warm-hearted people have offered their hands to help the opera talent. Artists believe Lu is one of the future stars of the historical Peking Opera art, and they look forward to the day when he can keep shining on stage.
(China Daily April 6, 2006)